Unavoidable NPC deaths - what's your opinion?

What’s your opinion on unavoidable NPC deaths?

What I’m writing isn’t meant to be a happy story all the way - think Beau Geste, but set in a more chaotic universe (Beau Geste spoiler: well, maybe that’s not really a good comparison, since by the end of the book only two made it out alive from hundreds). It’s going to have its moments but mainly intended to be an adventure story, starting with a desperate but still naive PC going off and joining the French Foreign Legion, before things start going very wrong. Set mainly in a desert outpost in French Algeria, and I’m keeping the timeframe vague, say between a decade or two before and after 1900.

I’m thinking of maybe implementing some unavoidable NPC deaths as the story goes on. It’s supposed to be a reflection about how deadly the Legion was - not all of your friends will make it out alive. Maybe you don’t, either (there will be checkpoints for the benefit of not having to replay everything from the beginning). Because that’s the mentality of the Legion back then: these are expendable men, soldiers sent to places where people die. The stakes will be made clear from the beginning, the moment the PC enlists. This is a place with no guarantees on survival.

It could be something rather straightforward. A battle, where someone with a high enough relationship stat gives up his life to save yours (since you were promoted to an officer sometime along the way, he thinks, better to lose him than a competent commanding officer during a fight). Or you get seriously wounded (possibly permanently) which takes you out of the fight, and the battle is lost with even more people dying and a hit to your reputation/competence as an officer.

Or it could be something more complex, like either choosing between one of two characters who are friends dying, or letting them both die. They are very close - there’s an implied spiritual bond between them.
The former will turn the surviving character bitter - though he understands it’s war so he will never antagonise you for it. He’s suffering, because the one who died has a more dominant personality, and he’s going to feel lost without him. If you go this route, eventually, his fate will be up in the air. He’s going to do something extreme, and although there’s a chance that he had survived (conflicting rumours and whatnot), you don’t see him again and never conclusively find out whether he lives or dies.
The latter choice has you letting them both die together in the fight.

Of course there will be NPCs that you have a choice on whether to save them or let them get killed, sometimes with a skill check, sometimes at some cost to you or others, and sometimes, just depending whether you (as the player) are feeling ruthless with your choices today or not. One I’m thinking of has its scenario yoinked from Beau Sabreur/Beau Ideal - a duty/love conflict but given more brutal circumstances.

For the greater good, you’d have to deliberately push someone away after he trusts and looks up to you for the past several chapters. There will be a reason why you develop a good rapport with him (it’s genuine and not something like being a yes-man) so this interact-able NPC will feel hurt by this treatment.
This eventually results in his death in a battle, but this way you have achieved that greater good (like saving a city or fort or something, it’s undecided) - or you can continue shielding him to some disastrous result with the rest of your company, resulting in much more death (possibly including a different interact-able NPC depending on your stats) and major damage to your reputation. The question here is, you want to be undyingly loyal to a friend at the expense of everything else, including betraying your duty and your men?

What do you think of an IF being this deadly to its characters, even though the circumstances can be justified? Is having a lot of NPC death like this too much of a betrayal to the player? Considering P.C. Wren himself has no guarantees on character survival no matter how brilliant said character is, could an IF go the same route as a book?

Sorry if this is a long rambling post. If you got this far, thanks for reading. I’m still at the “bouncing ideas” stage, and throwing everything to see what sticks.

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Wanted to drop a quick note, here.
Regardless of how a game or story handles character death, the moment it presents me with a choice where I get to pick a character to save while the other dies is the most feelsbadman. I can’t think of myself being in a healthy state of mind being in a position to save one while killing another.

Sure, war is often cruel like that, but my point is at least let us pick a 3rd option, even if that means our character just stood up there blankly while both characters are dead. I guess :stuck_out_tongue:

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Do you mean the part where I was talking about the two friends? I could probably have worded that better, but it’s always the one with the more dominant personality who dies if you go with the former route. The surviving one of the pair is the one who is less assertive and needs someone to look up to.

The latter choice has both of them dying together.

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Well, I’m sure it would appeal to someone–there are a lot of people around here who get off on angst and pain.

For me? I’d avoid the game like the plague. I play games because I want to have fun, not feel worse after playing than I did when I started.

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It’s your story, do what you want.

Not everyone’s going to be satisfied with your work so make it so you’re satisfied with it.

I do think that this will turn some players off, especially if these deaths are mandatory and you offer the illusion of choice that these NPCs can be saved. YMMV. The impact of NPC deaths on the reader varies based on if the reader likes the NPC to begin with I’d say.

I don’t know if it would be a betrayal but it would probably give some players a sense of frustration that they can’t save NPC after NPC so those readers might just quit the game. I know I would be one of those people and knowing this ahead of time I probably wouldn’t read the story because this doesn’t sound appealing to me.

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If you want to get some good, concrete examples about how to do this sort of thing, I’d recommend you check out the Infinity series on HG if you haven’t already. That series that does the whole “war is hell” and “characters you care about dying” thing really well.

My advice is to keep in mind what someone who is playing through the game might be thinking/feeling while they are playing. The reason why in most stories ROs and other major characters don’t die unavoidable deaths is because it can feel, well, kind of pointless if someone spends an entire game getting close to a character, spending time with them, only for it to end with basically no payoff. If a player specifically goes out of their way to cultivate a relationship with a character, and especially if the game pushes them to do so, it can feel pretty mean for the story to unceremoniously kill them off. You want the player to feel saddened by their death, not cheated. I think it’s the “unavoidable” part that really throws people off; in my experience people will accept that an RO or other major character can die in a given series, but no so much if it’s a guarantee.

There’s also the problem of agency; if every choice inevitably leads to disaster, it will make players feel like they have no real influence over narrative events. If no matter what you do, the choice is still going to end badly, then what’s the point? The Infinity series gets around this mostly by having hidden “third” answers. Usually if your stats are high enough in a certain area, you will be able to avoid the most undesirable outcomes and find a solution that, while not perfect, allows the player to feel as if they still have some sort of agency and influence within the narrative. Since not every set of choices caters to every stat, there are still instances where the player is forced to choose between undesirable outcomes, but overall there’s less loss of agency since there are instances where the player can make choices whose outcomes impact the narrative in a more positive way.

In the end I don’t really have any sort of solid “answer”; what ends up working will be heavily dependent on your story and the context surrounding it. For more concrete answers it might be better to just write whatever you think is best, then have others give more targeted feedback during testing.

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If it fits the tone of the story and the genre, some NPC deaths should be unavoidable. However, don’t force the issue, especially if it is not genre-appropriate. If you can think of a way that the player might be able to save the doomed character, through the stats or items they already have, implement it! If the death in question is a plot hook, set it up early.

Also, when you say unavoidable death, are you talking about non-natural, non-disease deaths? Natural and disease deaths are a beast of their own, and make any story more somber.

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It’s absolutely fair for some NPC deaths to be unavoidable, but placement and timing are everything. First, placement: how is the character going to die in relation to the MC? The MC having false chances to save the NPC’s life and always failing is a big turn-off, for example. Or, the death of an NPC knew the MC to shift the MC’s motivations or perspective can also be banal and upsetting, which brings me to my next point:

The timing of unavoidable NPC deaths is paramount. Both of the scenarios I previously listed could potentially work at the beginning of a story. However, later is a story, both would likely feel hollow. Generally speaking, I’d lead towards placing unavoidable NPC deaths at the beginning of a story- I don’t want a character to unavoidably die after having spent the majority of the story interacting with them.

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I generally dislike unavoidable deaths.

But, it could work if it’s in the right setting. In Choice of the Vampire, Silas will always die and although I’m still heartbroken about it, I don’t have any problems with being unable to save him (despite wanting to…) because it works with the setting. Vampires explicitly told you love isn’t for you and you still kept going so the unavoidable death didn’t seem out of place.

I guess it’s all about the stakes. I honestly don’t like when they kill off characters just to show how ‘bad’ a villain is, I think there are many other ways to show that. And killing characters for shock value just feels shallow. So basically it’s how you make it feel justified and at the same time impactful to the readers.

It could work when; it advances the plot, serve as a critical character arc turn for a character (or can use it as inspiration), fits with the theme, provides realism, and when the character…just doesn’t have any more use in the story. That’s mostly for traditional novels, but this is interactive fiction.

When their beloved character dies, they will try to play and save them and see if it could’ve been avoided. It feels somehow limiting when they can’t be saved. At the end of the day, it’s your story so you’ll have to do what you feel is right.

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Avoidable major NPC deaths are harder to write, as you need to still have good plots with and without the NPC for the rest of the game…

My thoughts:

  1. In the world/genre you describe NPC death is a must. Dont dodge it just because it will inevitably lose you some readers. It will win others.
  2. Spend time with the consequences. It’s important for major NPC deaths to be consequential – maybe not to the unfeeling world, but to those who knew them. Sounds like this won’t be a problem for you.
  3. Surround the death with choice and agency. If the NPC must die make sure the player has significant influence over the way it plays out both before and after. Most IF players will accept tragedy as long as it feels like their tragedy.

Good luck!

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I love that you can’t save everyone, aka that main character is godlike (as seen in many other games). I would play it, it sounds amazing! Personally, the more realistic types (Not as in historical correct, but properly build op character, stuff that happens that I have no influence of) of games is the better ones. Choice of games is a “chance” to live another life where I can be someone else, I can be a cool shooter, or a giant dependent coward or whatever! And having a sappy story where all is good is just not my taste

I hope you go through with your idea of unavoidable dead npcs
Good luck with it! C:

Not all of them will be mandatory, but remember that these people are considered the most expendable of the expendable lot in-universe. The few “lucky” ones where you do have power to change the outcome (AKA the interact-able characters), it will be at a cost of something else. You’ll pay with any combination of other NPCs (anywhere from another supporting character, to many red shirts that may or may not be replaceable in time), company morale and discipline (risk yourself and other officers getting killed in a mutiny if those get too low), and your reputation. Let your reputation stay too low for too long, you’ll get sent to the Zephyrs (the penal colony), and that’s the end of you.

Perhaps a high relationship stat gives some effect during or after the NPC’s death? Different outcomes for the PC’s reputation.

Some of the deaths would too sudden for the PC to do anything about in the heat of the moment as they can’t expect it until it happens (like a heroic sacrifice during a fight). Either way, in this universe, there are no promises for survival.
Although then the player will know in the next playthrough…

I’d prefer avoiding it if I can, but if a die/die situation for some NPCs in battle is the only way out… well, it’s going to be a last resort if all else fails. I’ll try and think up of something else first. Guilting the player after it’s happened would be pretty mean, too.

That’s a good idea, I didn’t think of that. So you can save certain characters in certain scenarios during certain playthroughs if you raise a certain stat high enough at the cost of other stats (and if you have a more compassionate than ruthless personality too, I guess). Not for all of them, but that could be a nice niche between the two extremes.

I tried getting into the Dragoon Saga, that’s an amazing worldbuilding but the whole universe that surrounds it is also a bit overwhelming.

Yes, that was what I wanted to avoid. You can’t be in control of everything - you’re still a small fish in the big Sahara. There will be some choices that require you to choose the lesser evil, whichever it is is up to you. I’ll try leaving it ambiguous. Like the two friends one was intentional: is it better to maybe save one life even though it will leave him permanently heartbroken, or let them die together as heroes?

A lot of sudden death from getting shot at, and a lot of slow death from getting shot at.

I’ve considered that and yeah, no. If say, for example someone gets shot and killed with a special bullet that gives the PC a major clue of the enemy’s shenanigans. Something that randomly comes out of nowhere that much and nobody can do anything about will be for a red shirt, not a named character.

I haven’t given much thought to ROs yet. They’re all (male) soldiers stuck in a scorching desert outpost in the middle of nowhere and they’re all tired and miserable. In the standards of those days, I kinda doubt a man would be willing to openly romance another man? I mean, everything there is happening in close quarters.

I still need to give some thought on how to fill in the gaps after between whether the NPC dies or not. If it’s an officer, naturally it will go to their next in command, so that’s branching dialogue there (and possibly different courses of action in the fighting depending on their personalities).

The narrators of the Beau Geste series spend a lot of time coming to grips over what’s happened. I think I can do something like that, characters brooding time and time again about whether they did the right thing or not, even though a lot of the situations are beyond their control…

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First, let me start off by saying that this post contains huge spoilers for the light-hearted, romcom story I’m writing about a first year student attending a high school for magic, and all the shenanigans that entails. So if this sounds like something you’d like to play, and want to avoid spoilers, you should stop reading here.


Although my story is intended as a wholesome slice of life romcom, there is the potential for the player to have a very negative reaction to a potential betrayal by one of the RO’s with chilling results. Choosing to follow that thread can lead to the player slaughtering entire swathes of the student body, before being confronted by the teachers. And even then, with sufficently high enough skills, the player can, if they’re quick enough, decimate the teachers before they have time to properly assess the situation, and realize the true extent of menace the player poses.

The only other permanent npc death is one that I’m actually thinking about removing from the story. Although, I did intend it to be a devastating gut punch. A friend I sent it to for opinions last friday, was so utterly emotionally crippled by it, that they ended up skipping Mandalorian movie night, and instead cracked open Saturday night’s wine, and then called at 3am to tell me about it.

The npc in question, is baited throughout the story as a potential RO, but they’re the skittish withdrawn loner type, the kind of character that apeals to players that need to step in and stand up for others. Or in other words, the kind players that would be the most devastated by an unavoidable RO death. The romance starts of very sweet and requires a epic amount of paitence and understanding from the player, who is given ample opportunities to display their feelings in some of the most tender ways in the story thus far. When the RO does start to show signs of flagging, as a direct result of the players involvement. The player is then presented with accepting this possible end and making the most of their time together. Or explore a range red herring options that will see them losing skills, and burning bridges with other characters, in a mad dash to save the RO, only to falter after each attempt, as time steadily runs out. Until they’re finally presented with one last alternative option out of the blue, that is treated as the golden bullet of magical options. Only to find that their RO had passed away before they could arrive with the solution, tears still wet on their face, their dead eye stair afixed upon door hoping in vain to see the player one last time.

So, yeah, I’m still on the fence as to whether I should include the character as is, while my friend thinks I should sodten the blow somewhat, and possibly work in a potential happy ending. The thing is, players already have the option to not look for a solution, to instead spend what little time the RO has left with the player together, and in turn find closure. It’s just that the kind of player that is likely romance this RO, is also the kind of player that’ll never give up.

My friend tends to consume media with the end goal of satisfaction, while I tend towards enjoying the experiences along the way, in many ways it’s the classical argument of journey vs. destination. In many ways, experiencing a great love, only to have it torn from your grasp, doesn’t diminish that love, it reinforces it, making it even more cherished.

The event that comes closest to resulting in the near-deaths of a lot of students, involves a student casting fireball in a classroom that could comfortably fit 18 seated students. Though the player can recognize the threat if they’ve learned about fireball, or attempt to dispel it if they’ve learned how, or allow themselves to be dragged off by an RO. Though should the dispel attempt fail, or the player attempt a more physical means of stopping the student, they are either hit by a tidalwave spell cast by student who was intended target of the firball spell, or both spells are cast simultainiously with extremely explosive results.

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We talked some about unavoidable NPC deaths here, in case you feel like reading through those replies.

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I’m okay with unavoidable NPC deaths as long as they’re not love interests. If a RO is going to die and I can’t do anything to prevent it, I’d like to be warned BEFORE I buy the game.

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I think if it fits the genre and tone, and character’s death adds something to the story, then yes, sure. If a character has reached the end of their arc, or they play a mentor role to another character, that’s a good time to kill a character. As long as putting a content warning doesn’t “ruin” the scene, I think character deaths are fine.

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To be honest I haven’t figured out how to work a RO into this yet. Maybe you met someone when you were still stationed at a city, but how you would keep in touch when you’re shuffled around forts is still a blank. If you were to romance a fellow legionnaire in your company, that’ll be easier to keep up, but I don’t know whether is a good idea or not considering it’s the 1880s.

If anything, won’t a romanced character be more likely to go berserk and do something reckless if their romantic partner is hurt in a fight?

It sounds like the “mandatory” deaths are for characters you don’t interact with very much. In that case, if I were warned ahead of time that there were unavoidable NPC deaths that I couldn’t change, I probably wouldn’t play the game. But if it happened in the game and I didn’t know about it beforehand, I likely wouldn’t be too upset so long as 1) the NPC deaths serve a narrative purpose other than shock value and 2) as others have said, they weren’t main characters or ROs.

However, since most people would like to be warned about something like this ahead of time, I wouldn’t advise “hiding” the deaths from the description of the game even though it would deter me personally. :sweat_smile:

I’m not a fan of this approach, either. Once I figured out this mechanic, it would just incentivize me to distance myself from all characters so they wouldn’t end up sacrificing themselves for me and dying. Unless that’s what you want players to do or choose between, I think many people will try to finagle a way out of the situation that causes NPC death!

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The most major NPCs will stay alive until the end, at least. I’m thinking raising the stakes at the end so that they may die (and you too - think Zinderneuf but for you) but I haven’t gotten that far yet.

Hm, I see how that would lead to that. Maybe a mix would be better, combined with your actual dialogue/given orders in a certain battle.

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@armadillidium If the foreshadowing, the narrative, the choices, or they NPC themself makes it clear they will die, I’m fine with it.

But if there’s a bunch of choices that lead me into a shaggy dog story, where the game strings me along into thinking I can save the doomed…that’d be less than fun. That’s not to say that it couldn’t work, but just that it’d be tough to pull off.

From what it sounds like, though, it seems your plot will telegraph what’s coming fairly well and make any consequences of player actions clear.

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